Two major cell types, goblet and absorptive cells, dominate the epithelial lining of small intestinal villi. We used freeze-fracture replicas of rat ileal mucosa to examine the possibility that tight junction structure, known to relate to transepithelial resistance, might vary with cell type. Tight junctions between absorptive cells were uniform in structure while those associated with villus goblet cells displayed structural variability. In 23% of villus goblet cell tight junctions the strand count was less than 4 and in 30% the depth was less than 200 nm. In contrast, only 4% of absorptive cell tight junctions had less than 4 strands and only 9% had depth measurements less than 200 nm. Other structural features commonly associated with villus goblet cell tight junctions but less commonly with absorptive cell tight junctions were: deficient strand cross-linking, free-ending abluminal strands, and highly fragmented strands. Both in vivo ileal segments and everted loops were exposed to ionic lanthanum. Dense lanthanum precipitates in tight junctions and paracellular spaces were restricted to a subpopulation of villus goblet cells and were not found between villus absorptive cells. After exposure of prefixed ileal loops to lanthanum for 1 hour, faint precipitates of lanthanum were found in 14% of tight junctions and paracellular spaces between absorptive cells compared to 42% of tight junctions and paracellular spaces adjacent to villus goblet cells. When tested in Ussing chambers, the methods used for lanthanum exposure did not lower transepithelial resistance. Everted loops exposed to ionic barium and examined by light microscopy showed dense barium precipitates in the junctional zone and region of the paracellular space of villus goblet cells but not in these regions between absorptive cells. However, the macromolecular tracers, microperoxidase, cytochrome c and horseradish peroxidase, were excluded from both villus goblet cell and absorptive cell paracellular spaces in in vivo segments. These findings suggest that a subpopulation of villus goblet cells may serve as focal sites of high ionic permeability and contribute to the relatively low resistance to ionic flow which characterizes the small intestinal epithelium.